In an earlier post, I discussed the gift giving ritual in the context of the looming Christmas holiday season. In so doing, I referred to a paper that Tripat Gill and I had published in 2003. Much of that post was focused on how kin selection is relevant to the gift giving ritual. To recap, we found that the allocated gift expenditures were positively correlated to the genetic relatedness between givers and recipients.
Valentine's Day is rapidly approaching replete with the customary romantic overtures, some of which will backfire. Why backfire? Well, for two separate reasons, both of which Tripat and I explored in the latter paper. First, we investigated sex differences in gift giving motives. Second, we sought to determine how well both sexes understood the motives behind their partners' gift offerings.
We broke down gift giving motives into two mutually exclusive groups: (1) tactical motives (e.g., to seduce, to demonstrate generosity) versus situational motives (birthday present; make up gift after a fight). Perhaps not surprisingly, whereas men and women did not differ along situational motives, men were much more likely to use gift giving for tactical reasons. From an evolutionary perspective, this is expected, as numerous species engage in sex-specific gift giving as part of their courtship rituals. In the human context, men are much more likely to use gift giving to woo women. This holds true even when the woman being wooed is of very high social status and economic means. One of the optimal ways to ensure that there will not be a second date is for a man to display cues of cheapness on the first date! I know, I know: chivalrous acts of generosity are instantiations of benevolent sexism (see my posts on this topic here and here).
The second key finding was perhaps a lot more surprising. Whereas women were fully aware of the motives behind men's gift offerings (and how these are different from theirs), men displayed blissful ignorance! Specifically, men thought that the same motives drive gift giving for both sexes. Hence, if a man offers a gift to a woman with the expectation that sexual intimacy might follow, he believes that when a woman offers him a gift, this is her expectation as well! What can explain such an extraordinary difference in the two sexes' abilities to read the inherent signals implicit to this ritual? Are men simply more obtuse and more boorish? I hear the united chorus of many female readers: yes! Perhaps so but why should it be that men are much less capable to comprehend the subtleties of this ritual? We proposed that this is due to the differential costs and benefits associated with misreading such signals. If a woman were to succumb to every suitor who promises to love her forever by offering her a bouquet of flowers, she would quickly realize that her ability to identify optimal suitors is lost. On the other hand, if a man were to find out that a woman offered him flowers, to then cheaply "use" him for a quick sexual dalliance, most men would utter in unison...GREAT!
Bottom line: Women have evolved the capacity to read courtship signals in a more accurate manner, as failure to do so has had (and continues to have) more deleterious consequences on their reproductive interests. I suspect that if I had put up a post wherein I had demonstrated a superior ability in men to perform a particular task, it would not be too long before some reader would put up a post claiming that evolutionary psychologists are yet again promulgating sexist nonsense. However, my feeling is that since in this case I am demonstrating women's superiority, I will get a free pass.